“Its Not Magic, its True”: Cheng Man Ching And His Method

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I have recently had the good fortune to spend several hundred hours with Cheng Man Ching, the great Tai Chi teacher and “Master of Five Excellences.” Not in person of course (Cheng died in 1975), but while editing 6 or 7 hours of previously-unreleased footage of Prof. Cheng, shot in the late 1960s at his Shr Jung school in New York City. The tapes show Cheng teaching form, sword, pushing hands; fencing with his students; teaching calligraphy and flower arranging; answering questions, telling stories of his life in China. Although I have been studying Tai Chi for over 30 years, primarily from senior students of Cheng and others in his lineage/tradition (T.T.Liang, William Chen, Chern Chyu Kuan, Tao Ping-Siang), it is only from this intensive encounter with him through the tapes that I believe I have come to some deeper understanding of the method—and the man.

To begin at the beginning: the structure and posture(s) of the body. Most people both within and outside the Cheng tradition mistakenly believe that the Cheng ideal is a very deflated, almost limp, completely sunk posture, much as the body adopts when, exhausted, you slump into a chair after a hard day’s work, or some other exertion. It is absolutely true that Cheng’s form emphasizes sung, or release of tension—a quality Bruce Kumar Frantzis describes as the feeling of rice spilling downward from a cut sack of grain. However, there is a yang which balances this yin in Cheng’s posture, and it is the raising of energy through the back and (especially) the back of the neck to the top of the head. Many who are familiar with the classic Tai Chi adage, “han sung bai bei” (loosely,” sink the chest and raise the back”) will recognize that Cheng is definitely embodying this ancient tai chi principle, but the specific method he uses—to hold the back,head and neck in such a way that there is a clear “postural strength” there, balances the sinking/releasing/downward forces elsewhere in the body, so that it is open, loose, and relaxed yet structurally strong, like a tent or other structure built around a central column or pole. Cheng repeatedly admonishes that if this component (the energy passing through the”gate” of the neck area to reach the crown) is not grasped, “even thirty years of practice will be wasted.”

Second major point: the arms and hands. In Cheng’s form and push hands, we virtually never see the use of any force whatsoever, nor even the change of the hand/wrist configuration to issue power, as almost all other styles (including most Yang family) do. After watching Cheng repeatedly neutralize and uproot students—most of them considerably larger and heavier than he—truly without using force in his hands or arms, I have come to understand the method, the physiological science if you will, of what he is doing:

We are primates (descendants of tree-swingers), and we also live “civilized” lives in which the majority of our actions are accomplished by neurological messages sent to the muscles of the hands and arms. We open a door, we answer the phone, we hammer a nail, we wash a dish, we type on a computer, we write, we draw, drive a car, give a massage—all primarily events occurring through the neuromuscular circuits of the upper body, primarily arms and hands/fingers. However, when playing push hands, for example, the impulse to respond to a push—or take make one of your own, is quite weak and ineffectual when made from the arms/upper body alone. We try to use the whole body, center the movements in the waist, etc, but we fail because the circuitry to the arms and hands is so predominant, that we are never really integrated, rooted, effortless, etc as Tai Chi desires us to be. Cheng Man Ching, by making his arms and hands completely neutral, soft, empty, etc, forces the impulse to respond top an attack—or to make one’s own offensive move—to be distributed neurologically to the rest of the body—ie, the legs and trunk, producing movement that is, yes, integrated, rooted, and (relatively) effortless. The body in fact, becomes more “intelligent” when the option of using the arms and hands to respond is “taken off the table”. The reason Cheng moves with such ineffable grace, superb coordination, and obvious functional potency is not because he is a great natural athlete, but because he has suffused his entire body with the “intelligence” of the human hand.

Think of the incredible dexterity, speed, changeability, subtlety of the human hands playing a Chopin piano sonata; now imagine an entire body that is imbued with the same qualities. And of course, as with all things Tai Chi, the opposite is also true:the power of an integrated whole body that can lift a boulder from the ground—imagine that power concentrated in the hands. Some version of both these transferences is what occurs when, using Cheng’s method, the arms and hands are kept soft and empty. It is not, as some would have it, a moral or philosophical principle, to use no force (in the arms and hands), but rather a practical, empirical method by which a higher level of functioning can be achieved. A mundane example: have you ever gone to open a refrigerator door, or a window, and because it turned out to be stuck somewhat, you wound up pulling your body out of balance, while the fridge door (or window)remained shut? And conversely, if you try the same door again, but imagine your arm and hand to be quite weak and devoid of strength, so that you have to pull the door with your legs and back, does it not now fly open effortlessly, in the face of your integrated, whole-body power? The “secret” if you will, is giving the “command” to the whole body, and denying the hands/arms the first crack at solving the problem. In Cheng’s Tai Chi, this process is repeated endlessly, both in form, push hands, and sword work—until it becomes natural, the “default” mode of using the body. And the result is mastery.

Yet most of us, even in Cheng’s tradition, fail to really invest in this method 100%, thus never attaining the full “intelligence” and efficacy of the body which he had. When asked once why none of his students had attained anywhere near his level, Cheng responded that it was only because they lacked faith—that it, were unwilling to truly use this simple, but profound idea that brings the whole body to life.

Even more than his tremendous abilities, however, what impressed and moved me the most in viewing the tapes over and over was Cheng’s complete engagement in teaching, in paying attention to even the smallest detail. I had heard the line that Cheng was himself an excellent practicioner, but not a great teacher, that he kind of left his students to their own devices to grasp what he was doing. Nothing could be further from the truth: in the tapes you see him physically adjusting the positions of rank beginners in a first-time form class; minutely correcting the practice lines of his calligraphy students, pointing out which of a hundred lines on a grid were made correctly, and which were uneven; repositioning a student’s hand in push hands so that a light push precisely made can uproot an opponent who was previously unmovable. He was as fully engaged, as fully committed to his teaching, as he was to everything else he did—totally in the moment, totally involved, and passionately happy to be so. Nothing was uninteresting to him, and nothing was outside his sphere of engagement.

For commentary on the tapes, I interviewed three of his senior students who appear in the original tapes, and are still teaching Cheng’s Tai Chi almost 40 years later: Maggie Newman, Ken Van Sickle, and Ed Young. Ed tells a beautiful story about Cheng: Ed was driving him to the school one day, Cheng was sitting, eyes closed, muttering to himself, going over some portion of a poem he was working on. Then, suddenly, he opened his eyes, and said, “You know, the air in the left rear tire is a little lower than the others. Check it.” He was so sensitive, so connected with his environment, that he could sense a small differential in the balance of the car’s ride. As Ed described it, “He became a part of the world, and the world became a part of him.”

At one point in the tape, Professor Cheng is explaining how Tai Chi practice can improve your health, by improving the function of the five organs of the body (in Chinese medicine). In fact, he says, fat people (“butterballs”) will become thinner, and thin people more robust, through regular tai chi practice. “It’s not magic,” Cheng says, with his infectious smile, “it’s true.”

So, after 30-plus years of practice, I have found new inspiration to invest even more deeply in Cheng’s method. I leave you with a poem of mine, an attempt to distill what his teachings, and his spirit, have meant for me. For his is an art that can carry us, not only through calm waters and bright times, but through the darker and more tragic seas we must all, at some time, travel:

do not seek to become powerful;
seek only to release fear from the body-mind.
do not chase after joy;
only breathe out your pain, your grief, your loss.
do not ask for mastery;
ask only to shed that which is unnatural and disharmonious.
darkness and day follow each other.
heavy is the root of light, stillness is the mother of movement.
emptiness is the source of ten thousand things.
release, breathe, shed, stand still, un-do
let your tears fall into the earth beneath your feet
let your sorrows sink and become your root
what you thought was weakness will become your strength
where fear has been dissolved, laughter blooms;
after looking inward
the spirit rises

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